She rarely showed such care, such patience and gentleness, but Pancakes took her fortune cookies very seriously.
She preferred the kind that didn’t come wrapped in plastic, obviously straight from the factory. It was better if the restaurant preserved some of the mystery by presenting the crisp, hollow fold as if it might have been created in some small, unseen room behind the kitchen. Pancakes liked to think that wizened elders composed the fortunes, baked the cookies, and tucked each narrow strip of paper into its edible housing with great deliberation.
Basically, the plastic messed it all up for her, and she often objected when her parents wanted to visit a restaurant where she’d already been faced with the harsh, cellophane realities of mass cookie manufacturing. Not that she told them her reason. It was simpler to say, “They use too much MSG.” Her mother, Lorinda, was particularly suggestible on that note.
The restaurant in which she now sat with her father, however, was of the plastic-wrapped cookie variety. That annoyed Pancakes, because it didn’t used to be one of those. She had liked the place a lot, actually, even if the Mu Shu pork was a bit drippy and made its little wraps (she refused to call them “pancakes”) soggy and hard to manage. It made for messy eating. But she secretly loved the sweet scent of the sauce on her fingertips later, assuming she was able to dodge having to wash her hands after the meal. Lorinda usually insisted, but her father frequently forgot—or at least pretended to.
Pancakes peeled the cellophane from the cookie, then tried to pretend the plastic wrapper had never been there, tucking it underneath the black plastic tray on which the waiter had delivered the bill. With great ceremony, she cracked the pale yellow-brown cookie neatly in half, almost but not quite preventing a few stray shards of the confection from dropping to the tabletop. All the while, her father watched in amusement. He never tired of this ritual, but he knew better than to be too obvious about watching. If Pancakes realized he found it funny, she’d become self-conscious about being thought of as cute. She’d suspect Emiliano of being patronizing.
As was her custom, Pancakes put one half of the cookie in her mouth and chewed slowly while she pulled the paper fortune out of the other half, which she set on the table. She the message silently and pondered its meaning. She didn’t seem to like this one, her father saw. When she liked what she read, she smiled and read it aloud with her mouth full of cookie. When she didn’t like them, there was silence.
“What’s it say?” Emiliano asked. “Not one of the better ones?”
“‘Your love of life will carry you through any circumstance,’” Pancakes read in a near montone. “That’s a fortune? This place used to have better ones.”
“But that’s a good one,” her father said. “It’s positive.”
She lowered her head and glared up at her father. This was the withering look she’d been practicing for months, ever since she’d seen her mother do the same in a play. In another ten years, Pancakes might very well stun someone into silence with such a look. At seven years of age, it merely presented her father with a challenge not to laugh.
“Dad,” she said slowly, as if speaking to a child, “it’s boring. It’s not even a real fortune.”
“No,” Pancakes explained, “it’s too simple. It’s not challenging. Like, what’s that word you used?”
Emiliano frowned. “What word?”
“When you were talking about that last Pancakes book. That one you didn’t like.”
Emiliano tried to recall. The quality of series had gotten so bad that he was ashamed to have his name still emblazoned across the brightly colored covers. Whatever he has said, he was sure it wasn’t good. “I’m not sure, honey. Insipid? Uninspired? One-dimensional?”
She shook her head. “It sounded like a number.”
He smiled. “Oh, benign.”
“Right,” Pancakes said. “That’s like this.”
Her father nodded. “Yes, I can see that. It is rather benign. You want to hear mine?”
“You probably got the good one. What is it?”
Emiliano wiggled his eyebrows comically. “I did get the good one. Mine says, ‘Someone dreams of being with you.’”
“Hey,” Pancakes said, “I think that was supposed to be mine. That sounds like the kind of fortune I should get. This one’s for you.” She offered the paper she’d been holding, but her father refused to take it.
“No, I don’t think so. Besides, if someone’s dreaming of being with you, I want to know who that is. You’re a little too young to be getting that kind of attention.”
His daughter grinned. “Maybe. But anyway, I bet I know who’s dreaming about you.”
“Mom,” Pancakes said simply.
Emiliano smiled and looked wistful, wishing Lorinda were there with them. “Yeah,” he said. “She’d better.”
Pancakes noticed something on the back of her father’s fortune, and turning her own paper over in her hands, she saw that hers had the same thing. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to the series of numbers. She’d never seen that before. It was something these new, plasticy cookies had.
He looked down. “I think those are your lucky numbers. They put that many on there so you can use them as lottery numbers.”
She frowned. “I don’t get it. What numbers do you have?”
He read out his numbers while Pancakes looked at her own.
“But those are totally different!” she exclaimed. “How do they decide what numbers to put?”
Her father shrugged. “I think they just make them up.”
Pancakes was stunned. She stared at her father in disbelief. “They make them up?” she asked. “How can they do that?”
“Well,” Emiliano began, feeling like he was treading into dangerous territory somehow, “they just make up the numbers. They can’t know what numbers to put.”
It made no sense to Pancakes, no sense at all. “But how can they just make it up? It’s too important. What if people go and bet on them? They can’t all win!”
He was sure the truth was just going to upset her further, but Emiliano didn’t know what else to say. “Then I guess they lose their money, Pancakes. It’s the lottery, after all. People lose all the time at it.”
Pancakes looked disgusted with the whole thing. She wadded up her fortune and threw it on the table. Usually, her father knew, she liked to keep them and later tape them into her scrapbooks. “Yeah, people lose, but they do it with their own numbers. Not numbers some fortune told them to use.”
She pushed away from the table. The waiter had taken Emiliano’s money and brought his change during the course of their exchange. “Can we go, Dad?” she asked.
“Sure, honey, let’s go. Are you okay?”
She nodded. “Sure. I’m fine. I just don’t think they should make up important things, that’s all.”
Her father nodded. “No, they shouldn’t. Plus, there’s something else I noticed tonight.”
“I think this restaurant has started using too much MSG.”
Pancakes took her father’s hand and led him toward the door. “I noticed that too,” she said, smiling up at him as they pushed through the glass door and stepped out into the dark night.